THS Director awarded Australia Day honours

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Saturday, 26 January, 2013

Rick Speare was today awarded a Membership in the Order of Australia (general division). The award recognises his “significant service to medical and biological research through leadership roles in the areas of public health and wildlife conservation”.

This interesting combination is due to Rick’s dual bachelors degrees in both veterinary science and human medicine combined with his more than three decades of research and activities aimed to improve the health of both human and animal populations. His particular interest is in the control of communicable diseases in humans and other animals. His two major goals have been to i) use research to generate evidence to enable better decisions; and ii) to build capacity in people attempting to improve human or animal health, particularly in the tropics.

In wildlife conservation Rick’s major contribution has been to amphibians and Australian marsupials. His work on amphibian declines led to the discovery of amphibian chytridiomycosis, a fungal disease that has devastated amphibian populations globally. Rick was part of the diverse multi-national and multi-institutional team that discovered the cause of these declines (Berger et al 1998). He assisted the Australian government to establish a Threat Abatement Plan to control the impact of chytridiomycosis on Australian frogs. Rick also helped foster amphibian disease research in South Africa and New Zealand. Rick also directed his efforts at the global level, assisting the World Organisation for Animal Health, to implement international control strategies.

In public health Rick’s research and implementation activities have ranged from better management of head lice, through using hookworms as novel therapy for allergic and autoimmune diseases, to improving the health of dogs in rural and remote Aboriginal communities, to controlling communicable diseases (particularly parasitic and outbreak diseases) in developing countries, particularly South Africa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Papua New Guinea.

Rick has been involved in establishing the Australasian College of Tropical Medicine (Foundation President), the National Strongyloides Working Group and Animal Management in Rural and Remote Indigenous Communities.

Rick’s efforts to build capacity in people working to improve health in the tropics have been through three mechanisms: i) post-graduate teaching in public health at the Anton Breinl Centre for Public Health and Tropical Medicine (ABC), James Cook University (JCU); ii) training researchers (Masters, PhD, Doctor of Public Health) at James Cook University; iii) training health professionals in developing countries in how to do research to answer their local questions. When Rick joined the ABC in 1991 it had 10 post-graduate students and no graduates. When he stepped down as Director in 2011, the ABC had over 800 post-graduate students. Rick has been on supervisory teams of 30 successful higher degree research students in a diverse range of topics. Rick, as an Emeritus professor at JCU, is currently on advisory teams for 15 students, researching topics ranging from amphibian diseases to smoking in remote Indigenous communities. Training of health professionals at Atoifi, a remote area of the Solomon Islands, is ongoing through THS. A recent grant from the Australian Respiratory Council to Atoifi will be used to develop strategies to diagnose and treat tuberculosis much faster in remote traditional communities on Malaita.

Rick’s opportunity to assist his Indigenous health colleagues in becoming skilled researchers has been a very satisfying and rewarding capacity building activity. The Building Indigenous Research Capacity project at JCU has resulted in 17 Indigenous health professionals gaining multiple masters degrees, 3 PhDs (Dr Gracelyn Smallwood, Dr Roianne West, and Dr Lenore Geia) with more completions in the pipeline, and three professorial appointments. This cadre of Indigenous health researchers is already making significant contributions to improving Indigenous health and Indigenous well-being.

Rick is currently in Hong Kong, where he was an invited speaker on zoonotic and emerging infectious diseases in a workshop on veterinary education. Hong Kong has no veterinary school and is considering establishing one. This is a wonderful step and absolutely essential for such an important country.

For the complete list of awards see the Sydney Morning Herald.

References

Berger L, Speare R, Daszak P, Green ED, Cunningham AA, Goggin CL, Slocombe R, Ragan MA, Hyatt AD, McDonald KR, Hines HB, Lips KR, Marantelli G, Parkes H. Chytridiomycosis causes amphibian mortality associated with population declines in the rainforests of Australia and Central America. Proceedings of National Academy of Science 1998;95:9031-9036.